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Harriet Reece is the winner!

Alph W. Johnson is the answer for Week 61 of Orofino History Trivia, a special feature to celebrate the history and heritage of Clearwater Country.

Editor's Note: Phil and Dick Johnston, the sons of Alph W. Johnson, are a wealth of information about not only their family history, but about the timber industry in Clearwater Country and some of the most memorable people involved in the profession. They provided the following information about their father and family history.

Alph W. Johnson was born Aug. 21, 1903 on his family's homestead at Lake Killarney on the Coeur d'Alene River near Lane. He was the second child in the family and had two brothers and one sister. His father, William Joseph (W.J.) Johnson was in the timber business.

In 1917, the family moved off the logging homestead. W.J. had a friend who told him about the bumper crops of wheat and he decided to try his hand at farming, so they bought land in Canada in 1918 at Barrons in Alberta. Unfortunately, four years of drought and crop failure followed and they went broke. The family moved to Seattle, WA because Alph's mother, Sarah Lillian Johnson, had poor health and needed to be near sea level.

In 1925, W.J. heard from a friend about the saw mill he had on the Clearwater River at McGill Spur (now a favorite fishing hole down river from Orofino). The friend told him about the wonderful logging opportunities in the area. He came to the area, rode into the Canyon Creek area on horseback and stayed. Sarah and the rest of the family stayed in Seattle due to her health.

Now we come to the explanation of the difference in last names in the family: Alph's brother, Max worked on the waterfront. He was often called a "Swede" and he did not like that. One day, he was thumbing through the phone book and noticed that there were a lot less Johnstons than Johnsons. The family members in Seattle agreed and started using Johnston. At that time whatever people said their name was, it was. They did not have to follow any legal procedures. W.J.was in Orofino and did not change his name. Many years later, when W.J. died and Alph inherited, Alph changed his name back to Johnson because of the confusion and questions. His children had the option of doing the same, but decided not to do so.

W.J. worked off and on for Soderberg and McCarthy who had a mill at Cow Creek. In about 1927, he started his own mill at Canyon Creek off what is now known as Johnson Mill Rd.

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In 1930, Alph married Gladys Elizabeth Butler and the young couple came to Orofino for a visit during their honeymoon.

W.J. was grooming his youngest son, "Little Bill", to take over the business. Unfortunately, the young man was asphyxiated in a Ford roadster in 1935. After that, W.J. approached Alph to come and work in the business.

In 1938, the original mill burned. It was rebuilt by the summer of 1940. Dick tells about the skills of Nephi Wolverton who was the millwright. One evening at supper when the rebuilding was far enough along, W.J. told the fireman to have steam in the morning because, "We're going to turn her over and saw a few boards." The whistle blew at 7 a.m. They sawed lumber all day and never had to realign a wheel or anything. W.J. is described by his grandsons as the strong, silent type. If he walked by a worker without comment, they were doing well. If not he let them know.

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Meanwhile, Alph had been working in Seattle as a cigar and candy salesman. In 1940, he decided to move his family to Orofino and work with his father. He worked primarily as a mechanic until the fall of 1946 when his father's health deteriorated and he took on other responsibilities to help. W.J. died in April of 1947 and Alph inherited the business. It was at that point he changed his name back to Johnson. Alph and Gladys Elizabeth had three children, Phil, Dick and Ron. All had the last name with "T" in it and they did not change when Alph did.

W.J. was in debt when he died and Alph was able to pay off the debts and started running the mill 12 months of the year. At the high point there were 103 employees. The operation was unique because they did all their own logging. Other companies hired gyppo loggers. In the early days the logging was done with horses. Each horse team had a least six men. There were two saw gangs, a swamper and a teamster. Chainsaws were a real milestone because less people were needed to do the job.

In the early days, the crews lived at the mill site. There was a village for the married people and a bunkhouse and other accommodations for those who were single. There was also a cookhouse.

The mill ran with a Corliss steam engine until about 1946 when they got electricity. The fire box for the engine had to be redone about every five years. With the Rural Electrification Administration and Lime Mountain, there was electricity at the mill two years before they had it at home.

Dick said that while cedar poles were just a sideline, sometimes they were what made the money when the mill did not make a profit.

Alph and Gladys Elizabeth's sons grew up in the industry and eventually, two of them, Phil and Ron worked in the family business. Prior to Alph's retirement, they incorporated as Alph Johnson and Sons, Inc. Dick worked at the mill a few summers, but was pulled by the city and went to college and then the military.

Until 1942, the mill cut white pine that was used to make matches. The logs were cut into blocks about 2 1/4 inches in length and put through a press that left them looking like a porcupine. The matches were finished at the White Pine Lumber Company.

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Later, Johnsons Mill cut a variety of species. These species were used for construction. After Alph's retirement in 1967, Phil and Ron ran the operation. After his retirement, Alph made fine furniture. He made each granddaughter a cedar chest and the grandsons a night stand. Dick said his father was very practical minded, persistent and could do math in his head. Phil added that he also had vision. During the war years when they were not able to get parts for the mill, he would work all night making them. He had a lot of mechanical ability that was mostly self-taught. His formal education only went to the third grade, but he later worked and went to the University of Washington at night.

Dick and Phil said they could not talk about their father without also talking about their mother. Gladys Elizabeth was a registered nurse and Dr. A.B. Pappenhagen wanted her to work for him, but she told him her family came first and she stayed home, as did most married women of the era. Dick said she had good judgment and was a good partner for their father. The couple was married 54 years. Alph died Nov. 1, 1984.

Phil and Ron ran the operation until 1972 when the mill closed. Alph had a commitment from Potlatch for timber before they built Jaype, but they told them in 1971 that they were going to stop supplying them with timber. That long with the environmental movement reducing available timber all over spelled the end of the company. At the end, the mill was cutting 80,000 board feet per day with a single head rig, double cut.

Photos: Top--Johnson Mill at Canyon Creek about 1954. Second W.J. and Alph Johnson at the mill in about 1945-46. Third--Alph Johnson in 1941. (Photos courtesy of Alph Johnson's family)

Monday: Drove a delivery truck.

Tuesday: Rancher.

Wednesday: Involved in politics.

Thursday: Masons, Elks, Shriners

Friday: Owned real estate

Saturday: Was a partner in a lumber company

Trivia Archives

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Window on the Clearwater
P.O. Box 2444
Orofino, ID 83544
Fax: 208-476-3407